Can immersive technologies support the vulnerable?

4th October 2022

From our recent round table with public service leaders, Liz O’Driscoll outlines the potential for immersive technologies to support the vulnerable

The pandemic has starkly highlighted the importance of providing rapid support to those who are most vulnerable. And it also highlighted the important role technology plays in helping to identify and protect those at risk.

In our new series (Perspectives*) we explored the potential for immersive technology (AR, VR and MR) to impact the delivery of public services. Our research uncovered several use cases across public services where these technologies are already beginning to enhance lives. We believe that immersive technologies offer an exciting opportunity to enhance services to those most at risk of social isolation and loneliness; providing a way to stay connected, and to live independently and safely at home.

So, it was a real pleasure to host our first round table which brought together social housing leaders and experts in software and technology to discuss how we could use immersive technologies to better support our most vulnerable. Here are my five key takeaways.

1. Immersive technologies are already starting to make an impact
I was thrilled at the level of enthusiasm from the group and the immediacy with which they felt these technologies could be embraced to deliver real impact.

Immersive technologies may help manage loneliness by connecting people in ways that aren’t familiar but are more comfortable and more personalised. The ability to engage in meaningful dialogue when you can see someone’s face is better than just a voice call”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

It was clear that immersive technologies have crept into usage over the past year, by sheer necessity from the pandemic. This has resulted in what was expressed as “a breakthrough in the use of digital technology” and has opened up new ways of looking at how housing services are delivered. This is clearly creating new demand as well as raising questions about how these technologies can be embraced over the long-term.

2. Find ways to democratize access to new technologies
The ideal end-game would be to ensure that immersive services can be accessed by any type of device - whether you have a smartphone or more expensive designated VR hardware. Currently many mobile phone manufacturers have roadmaps that include hand recognition via the camera and launch of these features (which could be in 2021) will likely stimulate the development of a range of immersive services. The participants shared a view that a majority of housing tenants owned smartphones. So, making services “available at the mobile level is where designers need to focus”.

Device poverty remains a challenge. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities. This has been most evident recently in terms of children being able to access online learning during lockdown but will also be a consideration for immersive services. However, the challenge is wider than just the device. Broadband infrastructure is not consistently available, and many people lack the digital skills required to be fully included in “digital first” services.

Moving forwards we are likely to remain remote, yet the limitation for using new technology will be how open people are to embracing it. The human factors will create the delay.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

3. Provide a choice and keep things simple
People always have a preference about how they engage with services. Whilst a “digital first” system is preferred, it would not be possible to force everything and everyone to engage digitally. Whilst in many cases digital services offer a quick way for people to access information and book services, there will always be demand for face-face contact. Finding a balance will be critical to bring people on-board with new technologies such as immersive services.

Keeping the technology access points simple will also be critical to getting people on-board. There can be a lack of understanding about new technologies, which can create a resistance both from tenants and also housing officers. It’s worth recognising that many users are comfortable with the smartphone so making immersive services available via this interface will help with adoption.

Don’t make it complicated, the user experience has to be as simple as possible.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

4. Define the outcomes and the business case will follow
Whilst there are many potential use cases that can be considered it is as yet unclear to whom immersive technologies will bring the biggest benefit. The key to making the business case will be clarity on the outcomes that can be achieved; whether in terms of financial return, cost savings or enhanced tenant experience.

Don’t just do it because it’s sexy – do it because it will make a difference to people.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

Investment will be about more than deploying the technology, consideration must also be given to servicing it over the long term to ensure the information is up to date. No one wants a “short-lived pilot that descends into going wrong”. We will need to create collaborations between developers, service providers and end users to ensure that we can “put the platforms to the best use”, to understand the new challenges that may be raised (such as privacy and security), and to determine the optimal use cases and benefits.

5. Think beyond add-ons
Prior to the pandemic, technology was “largely seen as a function” yet more recently the potential transformative value of technology is being recognized. Our group reported that their organizations are beginning to talk about how to deliver remote guidance via a smartphone and how to build on asset management systems to better access the data within.

Technology can radically change service delivery. To maximize the value of immersive technology, we must think beyond it as an add-on to the current system, but rather as it offering completely new ways to deliver services and support the vulnerable.

This year will see us building some basic use cases for immersive tech, like using a smartphone and simple AR to guide a tenant to undertake actions such as turning off a stopcock. Beyond this year we should be seeing Housing Association leaders asking what else this technology can do”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

Having explored the perspectives of our experts on immersive technologies, I’m confident that there is so much potential for immersive technologies to support the most vulnerable in our communities. Both directly via immersive experiences to combat isolation, and indirectly via improved visualization of data to aid decision making.

Anyone who has the mindset to do it and who have their systems in the cloud could do a lot to bring on new technology to help improve the lives of the vulnerable tenants.”

Round table delegate, Perspectives from Civica

Immersive technology is just part of a portfolio of exciting technologies along with IOT and visualization, that, if we can make them a reality, really can improve outcomes for everyone.